1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 39-47.



Without any disparagement to Darwin or Hayley, to Lewis or Leyden, to Grahame or Kirke White, to Canning, or Frere, or Gifford, or Bloomfield, or other of the poets just adverted to, a far greater now comes before us in the author of The Village, The Parish Register, and the Lyrical Tales. George Crabbe emerged from an obscurity scarcely less hopeless than that of the author of The Farmer's Boy — certainly more so than that of Robert Burns. The details of his infancy and boyhood are such as to weigh on the heart like a very nightmare — an utter hopelessness seemed to environ him; but the Cyclops was not even thus to be shut up in his cave. Through a more than Cretan labyrinth of doubt and dismay and darkness, he battled his way over all obstacles forwards to the open day; and his works are now, and for ever, a prominent and a distinctive portion of our literature. Crabbe is alike the Teniers and the Wilkie of our poets. He was not unfelicitously designated by Sir Walter Scott "the British Juvenal;" and Lord Byron characterises him as "Nature's sternest painter, but her best."

It is not my purpose to interfere at all with the strange and striking biography of George Crabbe, or to record the early struggles under which most would have sunk despairing, but which at length terminated in his introduction to Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson, and in the publication, first of The Library, and then of The Village — poems which, for their raciness and originality of manner, as well as truthful description, attracted immediate notice. In them he did not show that confidence of composition which he afterwards did, when an author exulting in the exuberance of mature strength, and when possessed of a popularity which licensed an occasional vagary; but they contain passages which Crabbe himself never afterwards excelled — his description of a "Parish Workhouse" being as likely to endure as any equal number of couplets in British literature.

Crabbe now settled down into a parish clergyman, the duties of which from that time till his death — half a century afterwards — he most faithfully and assiduously performed. For a great number of years his voice was unheard but, happily for literature, the fire of his inspiration had been only stifled up, not extinguished, and was yet to break forth more brilliantly. The Village was published in 1783; and it was not until 1807, after a lapse of twenty-four years, that he again appeared as a poet in his Parish Register — certainly one of the most characteristic of his writings, whether we regard subject or mode of handling. The Borough and The Tales — each marked by the same daring originality in matter and manner, and by the same very peculiar beauties and defects — followed within the succeeding five years, thoroughly winning for their author a place among the master spirits of his age. The last great work of Crabbe was the Tales of the Hall, which appeared in 1819, and exhibited no symptoms of falling off; although in these his exhibitions of character are, for the most part, taken from higher grades of society than those in the depicturing of which he had won his early laurels. A subsequent collection — but scarcely equal to these in merit, from not having received the master's finishing touches, (for Crabbe, with all his seeming fluency and ease, was a great elaborator,) — appeared posthumously, under the able editorship of his son George.

If originality, if the striking out a new path, constitutes one of the highest claims to poetical excellence, few are entitled to stand in the same rank with Crabbe. Indeed, it would be difficult to point to any prototype, either as regards his style or his subjects. The nearest approach I have met with to his sententiousness, is in the old, quaint, pointed satires of Dr. Donne; and something of his graphic truth and elaborate minuteness of description may be found in the verse of Chaucer, more especially The Canterbury Pilgrims. But Crabbe added much — very much — which is unequivocally his own, and which acknowledges no borrowed lustre. His sea-side sketches are taken from observation; they savour of the briny breeze and the sea-weed — of the decaying fish on the beach — of the tarry boat and its bilge-water, — and are not mere imaginary limnings like the Piscatory Eclogues of Sannazarius, or of Phineas Fletcher, where "Tom Bowling" figures as Thelgon, and "Black-eyed Susan" as Chromis. He "paints the cot as truth would paint it, and as bards would not." His pictures of humble life have none of the "Peter Pastoral" about them, and are invaluable as truthful contrasts to the Hobbinols and Diggin Davies of Spenser — to the Marinas and Dorydons of William Browne — the Molly Moggs and Evanders of Gay — the Damons and Daphnes of Pope — and the Corydons and Phyllises of Shenstone. These were all alike creatures of a cloudland Arcadia, moulded into any form or figure of the poet's imagination, and who might have pipes in their months, either for tobacco or music. Allan Ramsay is the only predecessor of Crabbe who approaches him in truth; but the difference between their portraitures is as wide as that between the limnings of Titian and those of Rembrandt. Ramsay's is the Doric, and, as far as his sketches go, the real sunshiny Doric. Crabbe's landscapes take in a wider and much more varied range — the sandy sea-coast, and its stunted belts of woodland — the wide expanse of black, bleak moor, with its enlivening patches of cultivation — the umbrageous forest, with its tumbling and tossing stream — and the green ascent of hills overlooking all these, he gives us the shade as well as the sunshine — the gloom as well as the glitter nay, he seems to prefer Nature in her wintry to her summer aspects, and to paint men and manners in hues whose truth we are often called upon to deplore, while forced to acknowledge.

The characters of Crabbe are those of real and everyday life, not monsters of iniquity gorgeously decked out in silks and satins, like the heroes of Lord Byron; nor angelic visions of humanity, like many of the personages of Moore. They perform their parts, just as their prototypes do in the great world; but we fondly hope that a larger portion of their vices than of their virtues has been disclosed to us. He ransacks every lazar-house of the heart, and anatomises the very heart itself, with an unsparing scalpel. His forenoon's walk is amid the hovels of poverty, the abodes of guilt, of misery, and of wretchedness, where the thatch is rotting on the roof; and where the window, rudely patched with paper, "admits the tempest, yet excludes the day." Nothing is so insignificant as to escape his notice, from the ashes-heap and the miry kennel before the threshold, to the undisturbed and downy dust in the window-corner; from the fishing-rod or fowling-piece hung in the secret nook, to the fir-deal table, daubed with the glistening and glutinous streaks of last night's ale. So with the inmates — nothing in the outward man or woman escapes observation and chronicling, from the well-worn cap and kerchief to the pieced jacket, the old glazed hat, and the tattered shoes. He enumerates the very plants in their little gardens, and the succession of their yearly crops. Everything that relates to themselves, and to their fathers before them — what were their callings, and what their characters — the number of their sons and daughters, dutiful or rebellious — their respective ages — their qualifications and deficiencies — the colour of their eyes, and the cut of their hair.

In Burns, poverty, from the fascination and heartiness of his pictures, is made to look almost like a piece of good fortune, it is associated with kindly simplicity, with proud patriotism, with devoted affection, with uncompromising independence. Pastoral and patriarchal integrity and uprightness are weighed in the balance with the precarious entrancements of luxury and refinement and life, in its lowliness, is invested with a peculiar charm, which might be ill exchanged for the polish of rank, or the varnished hollowness of artificial manners. Such delineations we have in the Hallowe'en, in his Epistles to his Brother Poets, and in many of the immortal Songs; and who ever rose from The Cottar's Saturday Night without a heightened glow of religious feeling, and without a proud conviction that the true glory of man is based, not on his mere transient external circumstances, but on his moral nature? Crabbe's etchings are equally deep, but very different and, unfortunately, I fear, not therefore a jot less faithful. In his poetry he reads us a stern and instructive lesson, by exhibiting to us the sinfulness of sin in the certain misery of its issues, while he endeavours to lower the pride of the human heart, by showing how often its motives originate in selfishness. The gloom of his pictures is, however, occasionally lighted up by redeeming traits, tending to show that, fallen though our nature may be, something of "the divinity yet stirs within us." His episodes of Phoebe Dawson in the Borough, of Ruth, and of Charles the Painter in Tales of the Hall, and his tale of Resentment, where the hard-hearted wife allows the old man and his ass to shiver in the winter's snow, overflow with touching tenderness; while the stories of Peter Grimes in The Parish Register, and of Smugglers and Poachers in Tales of the Hall, on the other hand attest the harrowing power of his pencil, and weigh on the heart like a very nightmare.

As a short characteristic specimen of Crabbe's general manner, the following sketch may be fairly taken. It is of a gipsy's encampment:—

Again, the country was enclosed, a wide
And sandy road has banks on either side
Where, to a hollow on the left appeared,
And there a gipsy tribe their tent had reared.
'Twas open spread to catch the morning sun,
And they had now their early meal begun,
When two brown boys just left their grassy seat
The early traveller with their prayers to greet.
Within, the father, who from fences nigh
Had brought the fuel for the fire's supply,
Watched now the feeble blaze, and stood dejected by.
On ragged rug, just borrowed from the bed,
And by the hand of coarse indulgence fed,
In dirty patchwork negligently dressed,
Reclined the wife, an infant at her breast.
In her wild face some touch of grace remained
Of rigour palsied, and of beauty stained.
Her blood-shot eyes on her unheeding mate
Were wrathful turned, and seemed her wants to state,
Cursing his tardy aid her mother there
With gipsy state engrossed the only chair.
Solemn and dull her look with such she stands,
And reads the milk-maid's fortune in her hands,
Tracing the lines of life assumed through years,
Each feature now the steady falsehood wears.
With hard and savage eye she views the food,
And grudging pinches their intruding brood.
Last in the group the worn-out grandsire sits
Neglected, lost, and living but by fits;
Useless, despised, his worthless labours done,
And half protected by the vicious son,
Who half supports him; he, with heavy glance,
Views the young ruffians who round him dance;

And, by the sadness in his face, appears
To trace the progress of their future years
Through what strange course of misery, vice, deceit,
Must wildly wander each unpractised cheat;
What shame and grief, what punishment and pain,
Sport of fierce passions, must each child sustain—
Ere they, like him, approach their latter end,
Without a hope, a comfort, or a friend.

On a key totally different is pitched the lyrical tale of Sir Eustace Grey. Having shown Crabbe's minute graphic faithfulness, let us turn to his imaginative energy. He is describing the visions of frenzy, and we have him in the hour and the power of his poetic inspiration—

Those fiends, upon a shaking fen,
Fixed me in dark tempestuous night;
There never trod the feet of men,
There flocked the fowl in wintry flight
There danced the moor's deceitful light,
Above the pool where sedges grow;
And when the morning sun shone bright,
It shone upon a field of snow.

They hung me on a bough so small—
The rook could build her nest no higher;
They fixed me on the trembling ball
That crowns the steeple's quivering spire;
They set me where the seas retire,
But drown with their returning tide,
And made me flee the mountain's fire,
When rolling from its burning side.

I've hung upon the ridgy steep
Of cliffs, and held the rambling brier;
I've plunged below the billowy deep,
Where air was sent me to respire;
I've been where hungry wolves retire;
And (to complete my woes) I've ran
Where bedlam's crazy crew conspire
Against the life of reasoning man.

I've furled in storms the flapping sail,
By hanging from the top-mast head
I've served the vilest slaves in gaol,
And picked the dunghills spoil for bread;
I've made the badger's bole my bed,
I've wandered with a gipsy crew,
I've dreaded all the guilty dread,
And done what they would fear to do.

On sand where ebbs and flows the flood,
Midway they placed and bade me die;
Propt on my staff, I stoutly stood
When the swift waves came rolling by
And high they lose, and still more high,
Till my lips drank the bitter brine:
I sobbed convulsed, then cast mine eye,
And saw the tide's reflowing sign."

As Crabbe exhibited the magnificence of his imagination in Sir Eustace Grey, so did he the depth of his pathos in the Hall of Justice, which hurries us on through scenes of surprise, horror, and infamy, to melt us into tears of compassion for contrite guilt.

The tales of Crabbe, considered merely as stories, are often meagre, desultory, and defective in construction — nay, occasionally trite and commonplace his forte did not lie in novel combination of circumstances; for he had neither fertility of invention nor ingenuity of plot. They derive their interest, like the novels of Richardson and of Samuel Warren, from time aggregate impression of a series of seemingly trifling circumstances faithfully and elaborately chronicled. He laid not his pavement down in masses — he was a worker in mosaic.

Crabbe can scarcely be said to have looked on nature with the eye of a poet — he had little sympathy with the mere picturesque; and to him the romantic associated itself with the ridiculous. Sir Philip Sidney must have been an enigma to him, and Don Quixote chronicled among stark lunatics. None of his compositions, save the grand lyrical ballad of Sir Eustace Grey, show much of imagination — his fancy was rigidly kept under the dominion of reason; but confining himself to the palpable impressions of reality, he thence showed that "truth is, indeed, often stranger than fiction." Nothing is overlooked, although his microscopic eye takes in alike the mighty and the mean; and he seems occasionally to regard both with the same intellectual composure. That he preferred delineating the dark side of things seemed to arise from an idiosyncracy of his genius. The poetical taste of Crabbe was founded on The Deserted Village, on Pope, and Churchill; but the vigour and originality of his own intellect carried the boundaries of that school of writing into entirely new and untrodden regions. His heroic couplet has much more resemblance to that of Cowper than of any other poet — alternately sweet and harsh, classic and quaint, melodious and rugged. Between their minds there were not wanting several strong points of approximation; but Cowper was more hopeful — his muse delighted occasionally to catch the sunshine on its aspiring wings; and while Crabbe could only sec sin and sorrow, selfishness and suffering, to the end of man's earthly chapter, Cowper lightened tip his twilight dreams with visions of the Millennium. That Wordsworth adopted views of human nature quite antagonistic to those of Crabbe, will be shown, when I shall have occasion again to refer to him, in contrast with that other great master.